How Do I Decide What To Preach?

This is a pressing question for pastors today. Ultimately, there is only one thing to preach: the Word of God. We certainly cannot preach our own hobby-horses. We cannot preach anything but Christ crucified and raised from the dead. We cannot preach a health and wealth “gospel.” We cannot preach the newest fad. We preach the unchanging Word to a changing world, to use Harvey Conn’s helpful book title.

However, there is greater specificity needed here. How do I preach the Word? What part of it should I preach? The answer to the first question is that expository preaching is the best form of preaching. Every example of preaching in the Bible is expository preaching. You take a portion of Scripture, explain it by showing Christ in it, and apply it to people’s lives. Furthermore, I believe the most logical way to preach expository sermons is to preach consecutively through a book of the Bible. I do not believe that it is wise to preach Genesis, then Exodus, then Leviticus. People need a balanced diet of the various genres of Scripture. They need narrative, poetry, gospel, apocalyptic, prophetic, proverbial, and epistolary. They need a healthy balance of Old Testament and New Testament.

Knowledge of the congregation’s struggles is probably the key element in deciding which book of the Bible the people need next. If they don’t know what the good news is, then preach John or Romans. If the congregation has significant unity issues, preach Ephesians. If the people need wisdom because of stupid decisions they are making, preach Proverbs. If the people are to wrapped up in the here and now, preach apocalyptic (Daniel or Revelation). If the people are too legalistic, preach Galatians. If the people are to antinomian, preach James, Exodus, or Deuteronomy.

Lastly, within the parameters of what the people need, there is usually more than one book from which to choose, and more than one need of the congregation. Ultimately, of course, every congregation needs the whole Word, even if some needs might be sharper than others. So, how to decide among these various needs? I decide very simply by which book has the best number of solid commentaries on it. For instance, Acts is completely off the radar screen for at least ten years, since it is so woefully served by commentaries, and there are so many good ones coming out in the next ten years. By the way, to know what is coming out, this page is undoubtedly the most complete and up to date (Jeremy keeps it very up to date constantly). Exodus, on the other hand, is now served by an embarassment of riches in Cassuto, Childs, Currid, Enns, Houtman, Mackay, Motyer, Propp, Ryken, and Stuart, not even including many lesser but still helpful lights in Brueggemann, Fretheim, and Kaiser. Furthermore, Matthew Poole’s Synopsis is now half available (with the rest to follow shortly). With that and the Ancient Christian Commentary, and Keil/Delitzsch, you have a fairly complete access to all the best comments in the ages of the church, and with Carasik, you have the best of Jewish thought on the book. So, Exodus makes sense for me after I finish 1 Peter (which is another book now served with an embarassment of riches).

10 Comments

  1. E.C. Hock said,

    October 11, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Good thoughts! I appreciate the point that knowing the basic gist of each book helps you (through prayer) to make the decision in how or what to preach to your congregation as you discern their need or struggle. Yes, we preach the word, but the way we handle the word is key. Does the word we preach carry people to Christ? If Jesus says that all Scripture bears witness to him, the question arises: does our preaching do the same? If not, we can in adverently turn people in on themselves without relief or resolution or hope. Doee the word we preach reflect the living Word behind it, through it and over it? Some people like or assume categories of sermons: expository, topical, practical, cultural, etc. as if they are some how segmented into genres. I usually integrate all of the factors, more or less, into expository messages, at least the morning messages from the pulpit.

    I forget who told the story of the older pastor who once told a young preacher on staff that yes, he could preach a topical sermon, if he must, but afterwards then he needed to go immediately back into the church office, close the door, then get on his knees and repent.

  2. October 11, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    I think what the church could really use is theological sermons. I’ve known people who have sat under vigorous verse-by-verse expository preaching for years, and yet they have only the foggiest notion of basic doctrine. I once heard John MacArthur preach (in an evening service) a theological sermon. Every point he made was backed up with oceans of Scripture, having based his sermon on a particular text. I was refreshing to hear.

    It’s interesting that Spurgeon didn’t believe in verse-by-verse preaching through books because he thought it quenched the Holy Spirit to do that.

    Expository preaching through books is wonderful, of course, but it’s nice to hear different approaches to preaching now and then.

  3. natrimony said,

    October 11, 2008 at 8:55 pm

    I recently was asked to recommend a good theological encyclopedia (its for my mom). She has been enjoying going deeper into personal bible study and thought a theological encyclopedia would help. I really couldn’t think of one that would be stimulating but not too technical for laypeople. Is there one that you would suggest?

  4. G.C. Berkley said,

    October 11, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait for Mary Ann Beavis’ commentary on Mark to come out…..

    (note: sarcasm)

  5. E.C. Hock said,

    October 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Do expository sermons necessitate the lack of doctrine? Interesting, I would think they surely include it as part of what it means to understand the fuller dimensions of God’s word. Afterall (from the text), we are to watch both our life and our doctrine closely. This idea of expository versus doctrinal sermons is a strange dichotomy and contrivance. It must result from our tendency to lock ourselves in limited categories, or make distinctions where they ought not to be.

  6. October 12, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    “Do expository sermons necessitate the lack of doctrine?”

    Not if they’re done well; a statement which holds a world of qualifications. After some of the “expository sermons” I’ve heard (and coming off the back of a rotter today) I think a basic run through theology is necessary. In some churches, that can be done in an adult Sunday School, but in others, it may need to be afternoon/evening service material.

  7. Brooks said,

    October 12, 2008 at 8:35 pm

    This question is for Lane and / or another moderator of this blog:

    I have recently begun reading about Luther’s law / gospel distinction and have found it to be a great aid to my assurance. I was surprised to see Westminster West advocating this distinction – Horton et al. I never thought this was a Reformed view. A few years ago I read an article on the Frame / Poyhthress blog on Law and Gospel which repudiated the Lutheran reading.

    So .. my question is, do you accept the Lutheran reading of law + gospel? If so, what could I read on it to confirm whether it was true or not (preferably by a Reformed author)? How do you blend the law / gospel Lutheran reading with looking at fruit to ascertain whether one is elect or not (that’s what I was taught in the Reformed Presbyterian church I used to go to).

    I would have emailed this to you personally, bur couldn’t find your email.

    Could you email your response to:
    keithwbrooks@gmail.com

    Cheers and God bless.

  8. E.C. Hock said,

    October 12, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    Let’s say there is a distinction between law and gospel, but not a separation between them.

  9. October 18, 2008 at 2:01 pm

    Excellent thoughts, I’m an interim pastor and now preaching weekly for the first time (started in March). I started off with Sermon on the Mount, then Haggai, and now I’m going through the Attributes of God which brings in both OT and NT. Even when I’m in OT I bring in NT, and when I’m expositing a NT passage I bring in the OT.

    We do need the whole counsel of God.

    Just found your blog. Love it!

  10. greenbaggins said,

    October 18, 2008 at 3:51 pm

    Thanks, Shane. I have returned the linking favor.


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